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Marine Aquariums Drive Business

Though sometimes a loss leader, marine tanks open up options for sales and help build retailers’ customer base.


Marine systems are often thought of as the pinnacle of the aquarium hobby, and tank sales are integral to pet specialty retail survival and success. Marine tanks provide a competitive advantage for retailers, help bring in new customers and open a gateway for additional sales.

Nano aquariums continue to be one of the dominant trends in the marine aquarium hobby, according to industry participants.

“The nano style of marine tanks is popular right now,” said Chris LeRose, aquatic division manager for The Hagen Group in Mansfield, Mass. “Customers are looking for the ‘grab and go’ type of tank, with price being a big factor. A nano kit is ideal because most have all the equipment needed to start.”

 Steve Maletzky, owner of Tropical Lagoon Aquarium in Silver Spring, Md., noted the trend in nano tanks as well.

“In our customer base, there are a lot more nano customers than there are larger-volume customers,” Maletzky said. 

Still, while nano aquariums attract a lot of business, sales of larger-volume tanks are showing signs of life, as well, according to retailers. 

Maletzky noted that he tries to sell 75-gallon aquariums or larger, because the setup is more stable. Other retailers said that larger setups offer them the chance to make big sales.

“We sell a lot of big tanks because [competitors] aren’t going to go near anything past 55 gallons,” said Siegfried Gutekunst, owner of The Hidden Reef Inc. in Levittown, Pa. “We sold a 125-gallon aquarium yesterday, and we sold a 210-gallon aquarium today. We’ve got a 180-gallon aquarium on order for next week.”

Tanks from Aqueon and Marineland do well for him, Gutekunst noted, though he’s dealt with All Glass products for a long time and likes to offer its aquariums to customers. 

Novel shapes are also appearing from various manufacturers, but on the whole, the traditional rectangle or square aquarium is still the preferred format for most marine aquarium customers, retailers reported. 

“I think a lot of the [odd shapes] are more freshwater-oriented,” Gutekunst said. “With the reef tanks, I see more people trying to do the lower setups because of the intensity of light required, but … it still seems like customers are interested in the [more traditionally shaped] tanks.”

Some brands do well in odd-shaped and smaller formats, however. 

“Innovative Marine does this well,” said Bruce Kelley, manager at Aquatek Tropical Fish in Austin, Texas. “Their tanks are innovatively shaped. They’ve got their step-down, peninsula-style stuff, and they’re two-layer tanks, with a deep spot and a shallow area. They’re introducing different designs.”

Kelley has had success with the brand, and it’s probably one of his best-sellers, he stated. Maletzky also noted that Innovative Marine’s tanks do well for him in-store. 

Nanos and All-in-Ones Dominate

With the continued interest in smaller marine aquariums, and the advantage of being able to offer all-in-one setups in an affordable package in this format, many manufacturers are reporting success building out their product lines in the category.

“We’re seeing a tremendous amount of activity in the smaller cube, our 24G Reef Cube Nano Tank, which is a 24-gallon cube,” said Francis Kudla, sales and marketing consultant for Aquatop in Brea, Calif. “That’s been probably the most popular item in our line.”

The cube is part of the recently introduced Recife line from Aquatop, Kudla noted, which includes the 24-gallon setup, as well as a 32-, 40- and 48-gallon cube option. The line is designed to offer a turn-key marine tank setup, he added, and includes the high-clarity glass aquarium, an LED light, a protein skimmer, an assembled stand, a multi-chamber sump and other equipment. 

The Hagen Group continues to have success with its Evo 13 nano aquarium, said Chris LeRose, aquatic division manager for the Mansfield, Mass.-based company. Hagen focuses on nano-sized setups to help entice newer customers into the hobby.

“When it comes to marine aquariums, we look more for the success of the customer with the tank,” LeRose said. “We need to focus on success of the customer—more so the beginner—to captivate the customer to stay in the hobby.”

All-in-one kits remain popular across the board, said Karina Esquivel, senior brand manager for Central Garden & Pet Co. in Franklin, Wis.

“The technology aspect has been refined so that filtration and lighting systems work effectively and position hobbyists for success, no matter what their level of experience is,” Esquivel said. “[All-in-one setups] also eliminate confusion at point of purchase.”   

Coralife’s 16- and 32-gallon LED Bio-Cube aquarium kits now offer integrated filtration and LED lighting, replacing the old power compact lights, Esquivel added. 

The emphasis on nano-sized complete systems is good for everyone in the business, manufacturers reported.

“Selling the solution, rather than parts, makes a great deal of sense,” Kudla said. “For someone we want to attract to the hobby, I think an all-in-one makes a great deal of sense because everything is optimized to work together, and the number of decisions that have to be made to take that aquarium home are diminished.”

Cobalt International is putting the finishing touches on its new line of C-Vue all-in-one aquariums, said Les Wilson, co-founder/marketing for the Rock Hill, S.C.-based company. The line is designed to house a small reef or marine setup, and it comes with multiple built-in features to help reefkeepers.

“When it comes to aquariums, flexibility is the reigning trend we are seeing,” Wilson said. “For a while, complete all-in-one style tanks dominated, with integrated lights, pumps and skimmers already incorporated into the system.”

Maximize Display Space

Whether retailers carry mostly smaller marine aquariums or offer larger-volume tanks, optimizing floor space is key to ensure success. For some, offering a wide variety is easy because of ample square footage for displays.

“This store is 20,000 square feet, and we have probably somewhere around 12,000 or 13,000 square feet just in dry goods,” said Siegfried Gutekunst, owner of The Hidden Reef Inc. in Levittown, Pa.

“We pretty much have all [different tank volumes] lined up.”

Other retailers have to make do with less space to show off their tanks. Compounded with the difficulty of finding space is the need to show marine aquarium setups in action via display tanks. 

“Unless people can see it, they’re not really interested in buying it,” said Bruce Kelley, manager at Aquatek Tropical Fish in Austin, Texas. “I have space for three small tanks, plus our normal displays. The three small tanks I rotate out—about every six months, I’ll switch designs.”

All-in-ones are attractive to retailers for display purchases, as they can show off exactly what customers will get when they buy.

“We have a couple display tanks, which are what we like to sell to customers,” said Steve Maletzky, owner of Tropical Lagoon Aquarium in Silver Spring, Md. “We have one of the big Red Sea Max [aquariums] set up, and we have a big Red Sea Reefer set up. Those are really good plug-and-play tanks with well-built glass aquariums, which, these days, are hard to come by.” 

Customers need to see tanks of all sizes, and retailers should aim to make at least one of their displays aspirational to get customers interested and give them ideas, industry participants reported.

“I am always a huge advocate for retail stores to have a display tank,” said Chris LeRose, aquatic division manager for The Hagen Group in Mansfield, Mass. “This can range from a nano set up on the counter to a 200-gallon show tank set up in-store. We need to have customers see a well-established aquarium to see the beauty and create ideas.”

Staying Competitive

Margins on marine aquariums aren’t what they used to be, pet specialty retailers reported, but nonetheless, carrying marine aquariums in-store is a vital part of the local fish store business model.

“We don’t mark up the tanks or equipment,” said Steve Maletzky, owner of Tropical Lagoon Aquarium in Silver Spring, Md. “We’re trying to get [customers] in the store to buy fish and food. My theory is … it’s better to make $50 on something rather than your regular markup than it is to make zero dollars on something and have the customer come and pick your brain about it anyway.” 

For many retailers, the reality is marine aquariums are loss leaders that enable sales of multiple products, including livestock and repeat sales items.

“If you don’t sell a tank, you don’t sell the other stuff,” said Siegfried Gutekunst, owner of The Hidden Reef in Levittown, Pa. “The bottom line is, you’ve got to stay competitive. Back in the old days, you took your wholesale list pricing and marked it up 15 percent from there. Now, we go down 15 percent from that price. Right now, we’re working off of our discounts. The better the discounts get, the lower you can go with your pricing.”

Part of the formula for success relies on identifying customer demand and adequately stocking a store with optimum ratios of staple offerings to aspirational or innovative products.

“You need to identify those sizes that are appropriate for your customer base and make sure you have those in stock as a staple,” said Francis Kudla, former local fish store owner and current sales and marketing consultant for Aquatop in Brea, Calif. “That should be 50 to 75 percent of your inventory. You can adjust as you go on, monitoring the sales. Then, 25 percent of that inventory space can be put out to a rotational space. … I’d like to show [customers] a new aquarium every 30 days or so. That would be my objective.”

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